Third Place Writing – Sports Writing

Hannah Finnerty

Third Place
Bowling Green State University
$1,500 Scholarship

Second Chances: cast-off football players find success at mid-major programs

By Hannah Finnerty

Less than 30 seconds to go.

Third down.

A pass into the deep right corner of the end zone falls seemingly effortlessly into the hands of star wide receiver Roger Lewis with 9 seconds left.


The Falcons win 45-42, bringing the team its first victory over a Power Five conference team in almost 10 years.

Lewis’ catch, though spectacular in nature, was not out of the ordinary for him. His sure, soft hands that seem to have a magnetic attraction to the ball caught 73 in that 2014 season for more than 1,000 yards receiving. He’s continued his football career with the N.F.L.’s New York Giants.

No, football always came easy to Roger Lewis. But it was other things in life that sometimes didn’t, and if not for a second chance at mid-major Bowling Green State University, his football career might have been a dream beyond his grasp. Lewis got a second chance—redemption—and statistics show that his story is not unique in the ever-increasing competition to land game-winning talent in the recruiting wars waged by Division I college football.

The Case of Roger Lewis

In high school, Lewis was a football stand out. A native of Pickerington, Ohio, Lewis had his choice of schools but committed to The Ohio State University on Aug. 9, 2011. However, his plans of playing as a Buckeye in the Horseshoe were far from secure.

His efforts on the field chalked up big wins for his high school, and he led them to the state championship game in 2011. But Lewis also found himself the subject of two rape charges in 2012.

First-degree felonies, the charges were punishable by up to 11 years in prison on each count. On one count he was acquitted, but the other case ended in a hung jury. Instead of a retrial, Lewis was sentenced to 3 years probation when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for falsification in exchange for dismissal of a rape charge.

“I wasn’t a troubled kid at all before that,” Lewis said. “It was a situation where someone accused me of doing something I didn’t do.”

In light of the court cases, Lewis abandoned his dreams of Ohio State. After a year at an athletic preparatory school in North Carolina, Lewis moved back to his home state to play for Bowling Green State University, a Division I school in the Mid-American Conference.

But Lewis said Bowling Green wasn’t his only offer in 2013, even in the wake of the rape trials. Lewis remained a hot commodity despite the charges; he received offers from several other mid-major schools and even a few large Power Five schools, according to recruitment data from 247 Sports. But he chose Bowling Green.

“BGSU wasn’t taking a risk,” Lewis said. “Football is football. It was just a second chance.”

Former BGSU football coaches Dave Clawson and Dino Babers did ask Lewis about his criminal record, Lewis said.

“They brought up the trials,” Lewis said. “They did consider it, but they knew I was focused on football.”

Lewis’ case is not uncommon.

Group of Five schools (five conferences in the NCAA Division I that generally do not contain the football programs that are perennially nationally ranked) have made a habit of recruiting players suspended or dismissed from Power Five teams (five conferences that house dominant football teams and receive annual automatic bids to bowl games) for one reason or another.

This trend goes far beyond Bowling Green, Ohio, and has spread in the last 20 years.

And when Group of Five schools are at a recruiting disadvantage when it comes to high-talent players, why shouldn’t Group of Five coaches take the opportunity to bring talent to their teams?

Recruitment Disadvantage

Group of Five schools are at a considerable disadvantage when signing day rolls around; four- and five-star recruits, the elites of high school football, are more likely to commit to Power Five schools that can offer endless financial support, promises of national championships, big scholarships and a football-campus culture unlike any other. Even then, only a small fraction of Power Five schools reel in the big recruits, creating disparities even among “the haves” of the college football world.

Between 2014 and 2017, 129 five-star high school recruits emerged, according to 247 Sports composite rankings. Just 31 universities snatched up 129 players.

A few facts stand out from the data:

− Of those 31 schools, only one was not a Power Five school: University of Houston.

− 15 schools had only one five-star recruit.

− 16 schools recruited 88 percent (or 114) of the five-star athletes.

− Alabama destroyed the competition, picking up 21 five-star recruits over the last four years.

− Georgia and Florida State tied for a distant second, with only 11 five-stars each.

From this data, it appears an elite group of Power Five Schools have a near-monopoly on the best recruits, putting Group of Five schools and even second-tier Power Five schools at a clear disadvantage when it comes to attracting the best young talent.

Given these recruitment statistics, a Power Five school with a wealth of five- and four-star players could drop a troubling player with little impact to their season performance, knowing the following year another top-tier recruit will be added to the program.

Group of Five schools don’t have that luxury. Often, they’ll take the talent they can get.

When a skilled player from a Power Five school suddenly becomes available, but maybe with some academic, behavioral or legal baggage, an opportunity emerges for less-elite schools to pick up talent they could not secure through traditional recruitment.

A Second Chance

The decision to offer a “second chance” player is not taken lightly, coaches say.

When recruiting a player with a questionable past, on or off the field, coaches take their time.

BGSU coaching staff talk to the recruit’s former coaches and trainers, but research goes beyond football. Current Bowling Green football head coach Mike Jinks said he and his staff turn over stones off the football field as well. They approach parents and former teammates to learn more about the recruit’s character and attitude. School counselors and teachers are consulted to discuss the recruit’s classroom behavior and academic prospects.

“As the head coach, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for the actions of each and every one of these individuals,” Jinks said. “So there’s a lot, a lot, a lot to deciding whether or not to give someone a second chance.”

Sometimes admitting the player is beyond the athletic department’s power. Athletic prospects approach the university application process the same as the rest of the student body, and those decisions are made in a university’s admissions office.

Adrea Spoon, director of admissions at BGSU, said in an email that the athletic department has no control over whether the university admits an athlete or not. Spoon declined to be interviewed in person.

Cases in which a recruit has a criminal history are evaluated the same way as a general applicant. If an applicant, potential athlete or not, has been convicted of a felony, the student must provide police reports and court documents to the admissions office.

“This information is reviewed by a committee made up of various campus departments/personnel who have a vested interest in balancing both an applicant’s right to an education as well as maintaining a safe living/learning/working environment for all members of the BGSU community,” Spoon said.

And even then, not every former-Power Five player gets an offer, no matter how talented.

“There are guys that we’ve researched and got more information on through last recruiting season that we didn’t bring in,” Jinks said. “I know how we want to build (the team) here, and I know the way we’re gonna build it here, and I know what is acceptable and what is not.”

Coaches do their research. Sometimes teams end up with a recruit like Lewis who took the second chance and literally ran with it. As an underclassman, he led the Falcons to two successful seasons without any other issues, legal or otherwise.

But sometimes, coaches see players throw away their second chance. Jinks emphasized that third chances don’t exist.

Two Strikes, You’re Out?

Robbie Rhodes was another Power Five pick-up for Bowling Green in 2014. A Texas native, the wide receiver played football for two years at Baylor University, the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense at the time.

He was dismissed from Baylor in June 2014.

Earlier that year in May, Rhodes was arrested for the possession of marijuana and evidence tampering. The dismissal came after an undisclosed incident that “violated conditions of an agreement he’d made to remain a member of the team,” according to an ESPN article written at the time of Rhodes’ dismissal.

Just two months after Rhodes parted ways with the Baylor Bears, Bowling Green announced Rhodes had transferred to its program. At the time, Rhodes was a huge recruit for Bowling Green. He was a five-star catch coming out of high school and still had three years of eligibility left when he made the move to BGSU in 2014.

By May 2015, still under then Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers, Rhodes was charged with aggravated menacing, according to Bowling Green Municipal Court records.

By June 2016, a few months after Jinks took over the program, the Falcons had dismissed Rhodes for a violation of team rules, his second school in less than three years.

In the past, universities gave more than two strikes. Cases reveal universities keeping players for far more than aggravated menacing.

In 1994, DeAnthony Hall, a player at the University of Arkansas, was charged with attempted rape for an incident with an 18-year-old woman. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of public sexual misconduct and was sentenced to a year in jail. Not only were six months suspended from his sentence, but Hall returned to the university and to his position on the Arkansas football team. His final days in jail were suspended so he could start practice on time with the rest of the Razorbacks.

The behavior demonstrated by the University in Arkansas, Hall, coaching staff and local police officials wasn’t uncommon. As the nation witnessed in the rape case against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, universities and surrounding communities are often complicit in covering up criminal acts, defending the athlete and ostracizing the victim.

But Jinks said acceptance of behavior like that is falling to the way side.

“You can’t hide anymore,” Jinks said. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, sometimes a kid gets in trouble, nobody would know about it. Not anymore.”

Football: An American Identity

Competitive recruiting and second chances are driven by the underlying big business of college football. For the programs at the top of the competition, college football has become more than a sport; it is an industry.

Coming in at $1,510,482,000, the Ohio State University has the most valuable football program in the nation, according to fall 2017 statistics from the Wall Street Journal.

The Buckeyes are followed by Texas and Oklahoma. Alabama comes in fourth, falling just short of a billion-dollar value.

The highest paid coach in college football, Alabama’s Nick Saban, is paid $11.1 million a year. Comparatively, the highest paid coach in the N.F.L., the Oakland Raiders’ Jon Gruden makes $10 million.

Coaches at Group of Five schools aren’t paid as much as powerhouse coaches, but the coaches are still bringing in some of the heftiest paychecks at their universities.

At BGSU, Jinks has a base salary of $428,655 annually, according to USA Today’s 2017 compilation of NCAA coaching salaries. Former BGSU president Mary Ellen Mazey had an annual income of $412,136 when she resigned in 2017.

University of Toledo (UT), BGSU’s MAC rival, pays similarly. The Rockets’ head coach Jason Candle has a base salary of $450,000 that increases to $575,000 by the end of his six-year contract, according to an article from the Toledo Blade. UT President Sharon Gaber, has a base salary of $459,000.

Universities and athletic departments pay astronomical salaries to head football coaches to train athletes that bring in millions of dollars to their universities, but universities feel justified in their investments. They know that Americans love football. More importantly, they know that alumni and future students can be attracted by successful football programs.

The Flutie Effect

Boston College’s Doug Flutie threw a 48-yard “Hail Mary” pass in a game against the University of Miami, the defending national champion, in 1984. The football was caught for a game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock. Some call it the “Boston College Miracle.”

Over the next two years, applications at Boston College shot up 30 percent. This trend of successful football seasons followed by increased applications is known as the Flutie Effect.

Douglas Chung, associate professor of marketing at Harvard, studied the correlation of success of collegiate football programs and a subsequent boost in admissions. His study revealed that when a university football team has a great season, the school becomes more academically selective. It sees a rise in the number of in-state applicants, and applicants have a higher average SAT score.

Universities also see an average increase in applications of 18.7 percent after a successful season.

In a society that dedicates two days of the week to football, athletic programs and their brands have incredible mass media advertising power, pulling students to their universities. But when an institution’s athletic prowess is coupled with a winning record, applications pour in by the thousands. Although top ranked academic programs and great dining hall options don’t hurt, the idea of living in a college town drenched in sports-heavy American culture and big wins has prospective students caught up in the glamour.

But to reap the “Flutie benefits” of a winning team, universities must first build successful football programs. And for many Group of Five schools, catching good talent requires universities to strike a delicate balance, juggling the responsibility and potential consequences of offering a troubled player and the allure of a successful team.

And that balance is resting on a few second chances.


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